Speaking to the news media can always be a tricky business, especially if you are not an official government communicator, former journalist, or have other expertise in the area of media relations and strategic communications. Therefore, these tips should be useful if and when you must face the “Beast” — particularly, if you’re conducting your first interview. So before you get thrown to the proverbial wovles, the following tips should help you to better prepare and conduct formal media interviews with broadcast news outlets and online media (in coordination with your agency’s office of communications and public affairs, of course).
How to prepare for a media interview…
1) Agree to the angle/focus of the interview prior to conducting it.
You can/should request a pre-interview phone call for TV and radio interviews. You can even request advance questions, however, some reporters will refuse to provide them.
2) If there is no pre-interview, then provide background information to the journalist before the interview, as a preface to the points you plan on making. This may help to deflect negative/loaded questions in advance and set the stage to present your case.
3) Think about likely questions (if not provided in advance) and answers. What points and counter-points do you want to make? What headline do you want coming out of it?
4) Draft talking points with two or three major points.Putting your points down on paper will serve as a reference during/after the interview and enhance your focus.
5) Gather statistics and/or anecdotes (proof points) to support your talking points.
6) Establish a rapport with the interviewer. Find out some personal information about the journalist. How long have they been with the news outlet? What was the last story he/she reported on? Any sincere praise or recognition you can offer will often smooth relations. Perhaps there are some common interests you share or related personal background items (where you grew up, went to school, etc.).
7) Practice, practice, practice. If time permits, rehearse your answers and do a mock interview with a co-worker or colleague.
What to remember during the interview…
8) You are in control of the interview. Don’t let the reporter dictate the agenda. Deflect questions you don’t want to answer by reiterating your main points (repetition is key). If you don’t want to answer a negative/loaded question, then don’t answer it – or respond with a deflecting statement, such as those listed below; then repeat your key talking points and proof points (data/anecdotes).
* “Let’s look at this issue from a broader perspective…”
* “There is an equally important concern…”
* “Let’s not forget the underlying problem..”
* “That point may have some validity, however…”
9) Keep in mind that you can/should ask that a question be restated if it’s unclear, or to gain a few more seconds to formulate your answer. You can also give your answer a second time (and that answer should be used) – as new thoughts and points may surface as the interview progresses. To repeat or expand on an answer already given, use some of the following phrases:
* “In addition to what I noted before…”
* “On second thought, let me provide a more complete response…”
* “Please scratch what I said earlier, what I meant was…”
* “Let’s go over your second question again. I want to point out that…”
10) Maintain eye contact with either the interviewer (preferably) or the camera — but not both. Do not glance back and forth or shift your eyes from side to side, maintain focus and appear confident, calm and cool.
“Media Relations: Don’t Comment with ‘No Comment’ “
“Talking to Reporters: Ten Tips”
“Media Relations: Shaping the Story”
* As always, all views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.
I’ve run across these tips in every media course I’ve taken since the 80s. Some of them have stood the test of time. Others have not. Number 8 in particular is often over done. If you are not going to answere the question, say “no comment” or “I cannot / do not want to answer that”. The various means of deflecting questions and “staying on message” have become so transparent they tend to annoy both the audiance and the interviewer. It has reached the point where many people, myself included, rarely bother to listen to government/political spokespeople any more. It is too easy to predict in advance what they will say, how they will respond to any given question and that almost nothing they say will convey any meaningful information.
Peter: have you ever conducted a media interview or otherwise spoken to the press? If so, national or local news? Print or broadcast or online? Please don’t tell me, Sir, that you have “no comment” or your that you “do not want to answer that”…
Yes as a matter of fact I have. It was a central requirement of the job for Heritage Foundation analysts and secondary to many of the jobs I’ve held on the Hill or helping out on campaigns.
I have also helped prepare candidates and elected officials for just about every type of media encounter including the hostile townhall meeting.
My first media training was from the College Republicans in 1977 and was taught by Karl Rove. I have also completed in house media training at the RNC, the Leadership Institute and Heritage.
I’ve learned that media techniques, like football plays, work best when they are unexpected and well executed. As they become more common, the opposition learns them, looks for them and is able to respond to them. If they become so easily recognized that just about any amature can read the play from a distance, only highly skilled pros will be able to execute them successfully.
The non responsive answer is a prime example. It has been taught in media classes since radio days, is incredibly overused, easy to recognize and very few people have been able to make it work well for about the past 10 years. If it were left on the shelf for about a decade, it might regain its utility but right now it is generally just annoying. I tend to pivot technique which answers or at least acknowledges the hostile question but includes immediate follow up to take out the sting. But this can also be difficult to execute.
I notice a growing number of interviewees, including government and political leaders, declining to answer questions they consider unfair or reverting to the old “no comment” response in situations where they previously might have used a non responsive answer. This may be preferred technique for awhile until it too becomes overused and ineffective.
Thanks for sharing that info, Peter. It sounds like you’ve had your fair share of media interactions and training. So which of the tips listed above would you deem most effective for folks who don’t conduct media interviews on a regular basis and lack formal training?
Thanks again for the great feedback, Peter.
First, no one in any organization, particularly a government agency, should have any contact at all with news media that is not coordinated with their public communications professionals.
Second, before agreeing to any news media contact, particularly an on air or taped interview, sit down with the organization’s communications professionals and discuss items 1-7. Let the communications pros take the lead on items 1-4, 5 and 7. Subject matter experts can handle item 6 on their own but circle back with the communications staff prior to the interview to avoid overwhelming the reporter with a data dump.
Absolutely ask for clarification if a question is unclear. (Item 9) It would also be a good idea to have a communications staffer sit in to flag questions that could have multiple meanings and help avoid a confusing response.
Item 10 is good but can be hard for untrained individuals who are not used to focusing on a camera lens when a human face is nearby. It may be easier to just focus on the reporter and try to ignore the lens.
Most importantly, any individual who has not had media training should have a serious heart to heart discussion with the communications shop regarding whether they should agree to the interview. Two questions should be answered before moving forward. What does the untrained person bring to the interview that a communications staffer would not. Why is the timing of the interview so urgent it can not wait for the untrained individual to complete a 3-5 day training class? Sometimes there is no alternative but to put a subject matter expert or authority figure into an interview despite a lack of media training, usually in response to sudden unforeseen events. But whenever possible, it is better to leave public communications to the pros.
Communications professionals forced to deal with execs determined to rush into news media contacts before getting the proper training should probably warn them about why this might be unwise and then stand back while the exec learns their lesson the hard way. It might make them more compliant in the future.
A couple of other “production” tips:
– Ask what format the interview is is: live, live-to-tape, to-be edited for soundbites, etc. If the interview is going to be edited later, try to repeat the question in your answer, this will make it easier for the editor to include your response, you’ll get a cleaner soundbite, and it even gives you a moment to think of your response.
Q: Why is the LIBOR rate so important?
A: The LIBOR rate is important because…
– Re: #10 – Ask the reporter/cameraperson where they want you to look. With so many one-man-band operations these days, the reporter will often be making camera adjustments while you’re talking, so it will be easier to look right at the lens rather than trying to follow them around.
This also applies to those remote TV interviews where there’s a monitor with the host on the floor – DON’T LOOK AT IT – look directly into the camera.
– You may only have a minute (or less) to chat with your interviewer before starting, use it wisely.
Peter and Ori:
Thanks for your valuable feedback and insights. Your comments are instructive and most useful.